Facebook Fail

New Orleans     Facebook’s constant unfulfilled promises to fix the problems with their platform and its role in offering voice to violence seems to have finally come to the “sell by” date.  Patience has been exhausted.  The evidence has mounted steadily and seems to have hit a tipping point.

First, their #2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, leaned into the hearing before Congress, and rather than fixing anything, there seemed to be a collective yawn that emitted from capitol to cities and towns across the country.  Somehow, she has now moved from being the “adult in the room” to another apologist without a clue to the cure with her credibility shot.

Secondly, flipping channels before falling off last night, I stumbled onto the John Oliver show on HBO and a forever long piece that excoriated Facebook, held up Mark Zuckerberg to ridicule, and mounted a devastating indictment of Facebook’s impotence and incompetence in allowing Myanmar’s ethnic minority, the Rohingya, to become victims of genocide.  Even a few months ago such an attack and satire in the name of either news or humor would have been unimaginable.

Oliver and his team went point by point detailing how rapidly Facebook had grown in Burma in recent years.  They showed advertisements that Facebook had run in order to expand, arguing that most of the features of their platform were free and encouraging people to “get connected.”  They reviewed the fact that most people got their news from Facebook with the proliferation of smartphones, and, more tellingly, that most of the Myanmar population saw Facebook and the internet as one and the same.  Having established how successful Facebook was a growing its business there, they then point out that even as they became synonymous with the internet, they only hired two native speakers to monitor content.  They were warned about hate speech and ethnic smears by nonprofits and others continually during this period.  They then hired two more native speakers through a subcontractor.  Now, Zuckerberg claims to have hired 60 native speakers, though after all hell broke loose for the Rohingya and tens of thousands were killed and raped, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Let’s have some context which the show didn’t offer.  Myanmar is not a small country.  There are more than 55 million people that live there.  Social media statistics indicate that 93% of the population is on Facebook, compared to say only 2.5% on YouTube as the next most popular site.  Under military dictatorship, it was effectively closed to the outside world for years until very recently.   There was no natural filter that would establish real facts from fake news.  What Oliver didn’t share, but that members of the Organizers’ Forum delegation who visited there several years ago would have noted, Burmese is not the only major language.  Quoting Wikipedia, “Aside from Myanmar (Burmese) and its dialects, the hundred or so languages of Myanmar include Shan (Tai, spoken by 3.2 million), Karen languages (spoken by 2.6 million), Kachin (spoken by 900,000), various Chin languages (spoken by 780,000), and Mon (Mon–Khmer, spoken by 750,000).”  The show did provide examples of mistranslations even in Burmese on Facebook’s website.  Oliver was careful to not say that Facebook did not cause the ethnic cleansing, but it was clear they abetted it through their indifference, greed, and incompetence.  What could Facebook have been thinking?

Finally, a new tech-journalism partnership, called Mark-up funded largely by $20 million from the founder of Craigslist, is rolling out and will pair journalists with coders to unpack the algorithms and mechanics of big tech’s claims with what they are really doing about privacy, content, and the rest of the mess.  The FANG companies, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google had better get a grip on a new reality because their game is up, and real police are coming.

For Facebook, the honeymoon is definitely over when there is blood on their hands and when HBO and Oliver’s show can end the segment with people in various countries in their own languages repeatedly say that Facebook is cow manure or words in the vernacular to that effect.

Facebook has a role, but from Russia to Myanmar to the rest, change is coming or they are a fleeting fancy for all of us and an out of control danger to the world and its people.

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Digital Poorhouse

Columbia   Daily reports of hacking and contentious debates about privacy or the lack of it are now commonplace.  Reports are already on the front page of the papers about the fact that Facebook is even now alerting the FBI that certain groups have been formed to try to manipulate voters before the 2018 midterm elections in the USA, and they are likely being fomented by Russian governmental actors.  Concerns about the violence fanned by social media applications like Facebook’s WhatsApp in India, Indonesia and elsewhere have forced the fumbling Facebook team to limit “shares” to no more than twenty at a time, as if that’s a solution.  Nonetheless, the scariest thing I have read recently was a book called Automating Inequality documenting the “digital poorhouse” by Virginia Eubanks.

Mentioning this book to some of the tech team of Action Network, the great social action and mobilization tools and applications organization before their retreat on the eve of the Netroots gathering in New Orleans, where I was asked to make some opening remarks, they at first thought I was talking about the digital divide which is standard issue for lower income families.  “Internet for All,” as ACORN’s campaign is called in Canada or our $10 per month fights with Comcast and others in the USA are certainly focused on that issue, but Eubanks’ “digital poorhouse” is something much, much worse.

Here we are talking about digital tools, artificial intelligence, and mindless algorithms in many cases being weaponized against lower income and working families in precarious situations.  Proving her proposition, Eubanks meticulously dissects several case studies.

The first was the effort by Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels to make eligibility determinations for social service programs in that state, whether food stamps, welfare, or Medicare, through a more than half-billion contract with IBM.  The intention was to make the process virtually mechanical, cutting down the labor costs and discounting the experience of social service professions in the state system and by computerizing the process reduce beneficiaries.  The results several years later were such a horror that even Daniels was finally forced to concede that it was an unholy mess ending up in contentious litigation between Indiana and IBM. Tragically, even as the experiment was a disaster, it succeeded in both reducing the state payroll and, even worse, dramatically reducing the number of beneficiaries of public support programs in the state.  Paperwork was lost.  The process was complicated.  Appeals grew exponentially as desperate families tried to keep from being arbitrarily rejected and then struggled to get recertified.  People were harmed.  People died.  Families when hungry.

In another case, Eubanks looked at the problems in the Pittsburgh/Allegany County system of child and youth services.  Even with perhaps better intentions, data was weaponized and the error rate was extreme.  The algorithms assigned worse risks than common sense would ever have determined.  Children were separated from families.  Mothers were shamed.

Eubanks was not waving the Luddite’s banner.  She was cautioning that these tech hammers are pretending that all situations – meaning people – are the same nails, and the impact on lower income families is not only extreme, but given the way data works, permanent.  The “digital poorhouse” is caging a class of people and in her works, “automating inequality” by using all of these tools and weapons against the poor.

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Thanks to KABF.

Charles Lloyd & The Marvels & Lucinda Williams’ Angel.

The Doors’ Hello I Love You.

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